When I discovered that Liverpool would be holding a Phil Ochs song night at 81 Renshaw in remembrance of the songwriter on his 75th anniversary, I was nothing short of proud that the city in which I dwell would be paying its own homage to the legendary folk singer. It’s hard to encapsulate in the space of an article just who Phil Ochs was, certainly; when writing about him it’s impossible to ignore the many facets that constitute who he was – or at least how we remember him. The political tumult of his time and his own complex character seem to entwine when we look back on Ochs, and this makes describing exactly who he was and what he achieved a difficult process.
In short, Phil Ochs was one the most important figures to emerge from the folk revival and protest movement of the 1960’s. With a keen and incisive eye, quick wit, and a tortured knowledge of the world around him, Ochs’ song-writing was marked by his political passions, humour and underlying troubles. In 1976, after a struggle with depression, Phil Ochs took his own life. What he left behind was a legacy of over 200 songs, many of which became anthems for the discontent nonconformists and politically left of the 1960’s folk movement. Yet despite his importance as both a songwriter and political activist, Ochs’ place in musical history is consistently overlooked. Today, its up to a dedicated group of ‘folkies’ to carry his legacy.
For those of us who are aware of Phil Ochs and his contribution, not only to the folk revival, but also to the political movements of the time, it’s hard not to look back on our cherished hero without a feeling of loss. Even the younger generation, such as myself, to have experienced first hand the glory days of Greenwich Village, feel as if Ochs represents something bereft in our generation.
Last month’s event (organised by The Swapsies’ Huw Spink) was a warm tribute to the songwriter who dedicated his life to political causes. Featuring performances by a host of both local musicians and artists who had travelled specifically for the event, the evening was special for the way in which audience and performers were united through a love of Phil’s music. If there’s one thing the night proved, it was that Phil’s songs still ring with a prescient and prophetic truth. Decades after his songs were written, much of what was being sung at the event still resonated with modern times. In today’s climate of food banks, job insecurity, benefit cuts and zero hours contracts (the list could go on), it may be fair to presume that the true tragedy of Ochs’ story is the fact that much of what he fought for is still being fought for today. Because of this, last month’s event was not only a chance for Ochs’ fans to come together and reminisce, but it was also important to remind ourselves that the message of Phil’s music shouldn’t be left to rot in the wastelands of the past. It was clear that Phil’s music had a played a big part, not only in the life of each performer who took to the stage at 81 Renshaw, but also to each individual member of the audience, and with the venue supplying the perfect intimate setting for a night of acoustic music, the spirit of Phil’s songs couldn’t have come through any stronger.
With this month marking what would have been Phil’s 75th birthday, Liverpool’s event has been but one tribute among many that are taking place all around the world over the next couple of weeks. The gig last Saturday may have been small, but nevertheless it was a treat to listen to Ochs’ music in the presence of other Ochs fans. The fact that a multitude of these events will be happening in other far off places gives one the sense that Liverpool’s own event was not just a small tribute, but in fact part of a bigger, worldwide celebration.
The gig ended with a fitting rendition of Phil’s ‘No more songs.’ The song is a mournful lament for the singer who believed he had lost his purpose in life as he struggled with both writers block and depression. In spite of the saddening connotations of the song it was, however, an appropriate end to a touching event. After all, though it may be true that there are indeed ‘no more songs’ from the legendary musician; after an event such as last month’s, one can’t help but feel that the ones Phil did leave behind are enough.